In April, hundreds will journey to Dodgeville for the annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship to compete or watch in awe from bleachers, sample and generally celebrate the beloved hot cheese phenomenon.
Anna Thomas Bates has placed in the contest multiple times, and she’s not hiding her winning strategy. In fact, enthusiasts don’t have to wait until this year’s competition in April to try her champion sandwiches.
Praise ye dairy gods above, all can sample her cheesy creations at the new Landmark Creamery Provisions at 6895 Paoli Rd., the former home of Paoli Cafe & Grocery. It’s a retail store for Landmark Creamery, which Thomas Bates co-owns with cheesemaker Anna Landmark.
A NEW HOME FOR LANDMARK CREAMERY
Cheese producer Landmark Creamery began in 2014, and the Annas rented two different spaces: one to make their cheese, one to age it. They eventually wanted to have their own production space, but weren’t considering a retail front. Instead, they sold at farmers markets, local stores like Fromagination and Willy Street Co-op and shipped to cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
Then they came to the Paoli shop to look at a walk-in cooler, and renting the space just seemed to make sense. Thomas Bates said a retail store is a great place to experiment with small batches, get feedback and tell their story directly to customers. They have room in the back to start creating artificial “caves” to age the cheese, and may eventually move production to the site as well.
And delightfully, a retail store means a grilled cheese champion can whip up sandwiches for peckish customers. Isn’t Thomas Bates worried about revealing her contest-winning secrets?
“It’s just good ingredients, that’s the only secret,” Thomas Bates said.
She started pulling those not-so-secret ingredients out: Wisconsin butter and Madison Sourdough bread, which Thomas Bates prefers because it’s a “good chew” that creates a “pedestal” for the cheese. It sets up, but doesn’t detract from the cheese taste.
Which is good, because this sandwich features the creamery’s own Anabasque sheep cheese (it’s Basque-style cheese, their names are Anna, you do the math). The Anabasque has notes of toasted nuts, fruits and olives, and they call it a “robust, funky” specimen.
Thomas Bates butters both sides of the bread, adds the cheese (grated so it melts faster and more evenly), spreads on some shallot confit with red wine from Quince and Apple, and places it on a panini grill. A few sizzling minutes later, a crunchy, buttery masterpiece emerges. Today, it comes with the nice vinegary accompaniment of pickled watermelon radish on the side.
Thomas Bates believes in keeping it simple.
“If you add too many things to a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s no longer a grilled cheese sandwich,” she said.
The rest of the menu is limited, with sweet or savory toast, Lodge Coffee, and eventually, the ability to order a cheese board. They serve baked goods from Honey Bee Bakery, and in a few weeks, they’ll start making their own scones, muffins and cookies.
“We’re not chefs, we’re cheese-makers. We’ll never be a full restaurant,” Thomas Bates said.
They plan to keep it cheese-centric, Landmark said, which makes sense, considering their backgrounds.
Landmark’s grandfather was Swiss and ran a dairy farm in Mount Horeb. She remembers her grandma placing block of Swiss cheese on the table under a glass dome everyday.
“Cheese was just constantly on the table. It was just a part of every meal,” Landmark said. “I just grew up that way.”
As an adult, Landmark started making cheese at home with a pot, a couple recipe books, cultures ordered online, a mini fridge (acting as a cave to age the cheese), and a little wooden cheese press. She used the milk from her single dairy cow, Freckles, who produced five gallons of milk a day. She had to make a lot of cheese to keep up, but she enjoyed the process.
“I find it soothing,” she said.
It’s really slow, and you have to be very exact, she said. She loves stirring the milk, the smell of it and the edible end result.
Thomas is passionate about food and food writing, and continues to write a weekly column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which made it an “easy leap” for her into a small, artisan food business, she said.
The two met when they both lived in Albany and were involved in the Green County Women in Sustainable Agriculture. They both kept hearing about “the other Anna,” and eventually met and discovered their complementary skills. Landmark makes the cheese and Thomas Bates covers sales and marketing — and grilled cheesing.
At the store, customers can visit the cheese case, where all of Landmark’s cheeses and some other Wisconsin classics live, or check out cookbooks, pottery, Quince and Apple preserves and syrups, t-shirts, mugs, Urbal Tea and take-home fondue packs (just add a cup of wine, and melt it down). They know most of the makers of these products.
“One of the most fun things about having the store is actually being able to sell things that your friends are making,” Landmark said.
“Especially ones that people may not know about,” Thomas Bates added. “We know exactly what it’s like to be a brand new producer on the block, so to have someone help tell your story and have your cheeses in their case is really helpful.”
Their store is cheese-centric, and their cheese is sheep-centric. Landmark only makes one cow’s milk cheese, Tallgrass Reserve.
Sheep are easier on the land and efficient, making them fairly green and sustainable. Sheep’s milk has more than twice the butter fat of goat and cow milk, and it’s naturally sweet and nutty, Thomas Bates said. It’s also a great alternative for people allergic to a protein found in cow’s milk, and customers at farmers markets tell the Annas they find the cheese easier to digest.
It’s a niche market, Landmark said. Wisconsin has more sheep dairies than any other state, but that’s only about 15 active sheep dairies, most in the northwestern Wisconsin, Thomas Bates said.
That may be because it can be a tough business. “Sheep’s Milk Cheeses in U.S. Earn Ribbons but Little Profit," read a 2016 New York Times headline. It’s often cheaper to import European sheep’s milk cheese than buy domestic, as European sheep are more efficient and farmers generally benefit from more subsidies, Thomas Bates said.
Landmark and Thomas Bates know they can’t compete on price, so they compete on quality, and are helped along by the eat local movement.
They’re killing it on the quality front. They’ve won a slate of national awards and at the 2016 World Championship Cheese, everything they entered finished in the top 10, competing against cheese from France, Spain and Italy.
When they launched, the Annas decided they didn’t just want to support their own families, bu small family farms as well. That meant they had to make “quite a bit of cheese from the get-go,” and they work to be a part of customers’ weekly staple groceries.
“When you have a cheeseboard, and you have Willy’s Bandaged Cheddar and Pleasant Ridge Reserve (from Uplands Cheese Company) and Hook’s cheddar, we want to be on that cheeseboard too,” Thomas Bates said.